National Science Foundation taps Auburn researchers to study long-term impact of Gulf oil spill

AUBURN – Auburn University researchers were recently awarded five National Science Foundation rapid response grants to study the environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the obvious visual signs of the spill seem to be disappearing, the long-term aftereffects remain to be seen. Auburn has a long history of strong research in marine and coastal environments and these researchers are gathering critical information to support future policy and remediation efforts in response to the spill. Understanding what is happening to crude oil components and dispersants, and their impact on water quality, sediments and seafood, along with the overall coastal ecosystem, is critical to understanding the long-term impacts of the spill on the Gulf Coast economy and residents.

An NSF Major Research Instrumentation, or MRI, grant will allow for the development of a laboratory facility where environmental engineering researchers Prabhakar Clement, Clifford Lange, Ah Jeong Son and Dongye Zhao from Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering will characterize dispersant-mixed crude oil contaminants in various soil-water environments.

“The primary focus of our effort is to understand the long-term fate and transport of the dispersant-mixed crude oil in soil-water systems under various marine environments,” Clement said. “Additionally, we will pursue opportunities to develop novel analytical methods to test oil-contaminated marine species, which will include seafood samples.”

A second MRI grant awarded to biological sciences researchers Anthony Moss, Kenneth Halanych and Mark Liles of the College of Sciences and Mathematics and Alan Wilson of the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures in the College of Agriculture will fund a FlowCAM, a water analysis system, which will be used to examine how long oil droplets persist in the water column, to what degree organisms accumulate oil into lipid-rich regions of the body, both initially and thereafter, and the effect of the oil on invertebrate larval populations.

“The FlowCAM is a laser-based, portable microscopy system that we will use to detect the presence of oil in the water, and count plankton, including the microscopic larvae of economically important food species such as oysters, blue crabs, shrimp and many fish,” Moss said. “Oiled plankton endanger large food fish, which concentrate plankton-derived petroleum in their tissues, thereby becoming toxic to humans. We will follow changes in the plankton as the oil disperses, and will establish a time line that reveals when shellfish and game fish are once again fit for human consumption. This will allow us to predict the impacts of future spills on the coast, and how long the impacts will last.”

Ming-Kuo Lee and James Saunders from the College of Sciences and Mathematics and Ben Okeke from Auburn University at Montgomery are collaborating with Alison Keimowitz from Vassar College to investigate the effects of the spill on the coastal wetlands. Long after the more obvious signs of the spill have been cleaned up, the total organic matter content of the waters and surrounding ecosystems will be increased.

“Coastal wetlands are efficient traps of trace metals derived from atmospheric deposition and crude oil. Crude oil could contain varying levels of toxic metals like mercury and arsenic. Those metals are not biodegradable, thus they can remain in the marine and coastal ecosystems longer than oil,” Lee explained. “Our goal is to monitor the concentration, speciation, and releases of metals in impacted marine and coastal environments that may have concentrations above regulated levels for seafood safety concerns.”

Halanych is also collaborating in another NSF study with the University of New Hampshire and the University of Texas at San Antonio to better understand the biodiversity of benthic communities of small animals living in the Gulf of Mexico, their structure and the effect of disturbances like the spill on these communities.

“This funding will aid the long-term characterization of biodiversity, using cutting-edge molecular tools to understand the response of organisms to the oil and dispersants. These small animal communities influence the rate oil is buried in, or resuspended from, the sediment,” Halanych said.

Stephen “Ash” Bullard from the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures in the College of Agriculture and George Benz from Middle Tennessee State University are studying parasites of fish as biosensors to learn how the toxic effects of the spill impact the marine and coastal environment of Alabama.

“Our focus is on the health of the aquatic environment in Alabama and adjacent states,” Bullard said. “We plan to use each parasite species as a natural biosensor to examine the impact of the spill on fish health and ecosystem functioning.”

The NSF RAPID funding program is used for proposals with a severe urgency regarding availability of or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.

Contact: Carol Nelson, (334) 844-9999 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (